Resume Writing Tips
The least you need to know about writing a resume.
This page is designed for undergraduate students from all kinds of majors and provides introductory advice on how to write a resume. The word "resume" comes from the French for "to summarize," which is the purpose of a resume: to summarize your education and experience for your potential employer in a way that positions you as a good candidate for the job.
Prospective employers may receive hundreds of resumes for any one job, and their time is limited. Therefore, you want to make sure that your resume will help you stand out among all the other applicants as a good fit for the position by tailoring the information you include to your audience and to the position description. Your integrity is important, so make sure that anything you include on your resume is accurate and will stand up to questioning in an interview.
Everyone wonders about how long a resume should be. The usual advice is that, for a current undergraduate student or someone just finishing an undergraduate degree, usually one page is enough. As you accumulate more experience your resume will get longer. We recommend asking a career advisor, professor, or professional in your field about the appropriate resume length.
In fact, you should consult with faculty and career advisors in your field no matter what, but here are some basic principles designed to help you get started. Click on the links below to be taken directly to a certain section of the page, or scroll down to read about all of our tips
- Types of resumes
- Sections to include
- Breadth, not depth
- Active verbs
- Quantify when appropriate
- Get feedback
- Sample resumes
There are three different kinds of resumes: chronological, skills-based, and a combination of the two. Each type serves its own purpose as explained below.
The chronological resume lists past and present experiences in reverse chronological order. Present experience is usually listed first, using present tense verbs, then all other experience is listed in reverse chronological order using past tense verbs. This is by far the most common type of resume.
Skills-based resumes base resume sections around specific skills related to the job. For instance, if you are applying for a teaching job and you have relevant teaching experience, plus other work experience unrelated to teaching that would make you a good fit for the job, you might include a section on "Teaching Experience" and a section on "Other Work Experience." This method helps clearly highlight relevant experience using section titles in addition to job descriptions, and is a great way to pull out keywords.
Skills-based resumes can also allow you to combine related work and other experience through the skills-based headings. In the above example involving a resume for teaching, you might list your extracurricular tutoring experience in the "Teaching Experience" section instead of in the "Other Experience" section of a skills-based resume.
Skills-based resumes prioritize experience description order based on relevance to the job, rather than chronology. Use a skills-based resume if your previous job experience does not necessarily fit with the job you are applying for. The sections labeled with skills will help show your employer how your past experience is relevant to the job.
The combination resume is the type of resume we most commonly see in the Writing Center. Combination resumes might include some skills-based headings, but list experience in each section in reverse chronological order. Combination resumes allow you to show your audience your recent relevant experience, while also taking advantage of keywords, which is good for online resumes that might be found via search engines.
Your resume should be divided into clearly labeled sections that allow your prospective employer to skim through and learn about your relevant experience. The tables below explain the required and possible sections you can have in your resume. These are just some of the possible sections. There may be others specific to your field, or others that reflect your strengths and that are relevant for a particular job, so make sure to get advice from advisors, faculty and professionals about what sections to include.
|Contact Information||This section should be at the top of your page and include your name, your phone number, your address, and your email. See our samples to get a sense of what this section should look like.|
|Education||Starting with college, include which school you are attending, your major, your degree type, and your expected degree year. Only include your GPA if it will impress your employer (above a 3.4 on a four-point scale is a good rule of thumb).|
|Work Experience||This is the heart of your resume. Include your job title, your employer, the time span you worked, and the location where you worked. Use your active verbs and keywords to describe work experience in bullet points with two to three bullets under each job. Use present tense verbs for current jobs and past tense verbs for past jobs.|
|Honors and Awards||An honors and awards section highlights that you have been recognized as exceptional in an area relevant to your job. The section should come close to the beginning of your resume and include the name of the award and the year received.|
|Other Experience||This section is a space to describe community service or other extracurricular experience that might be relevant to the job. As with the "Work Experience" section, include your title (for some this may just be "Member"), the organization name, the time span you were involved, and where the activity was located. Choose which activities you include based on what might be of interest to your potential employer. Any organization where you’ve had a leadership positions, for example, is a good experience to include in this section.|
|Objective||The objective is a sentence included at the very beginning of your resume, right after your contact information, that states your goals in submitting the resume. Since objectives frequently repeat job titles or descriptions, which are likely included elsewhere in your application, not everyone agrees about whether you should include an objective statement. We recommend consulting with someone in your field about whether to include this section in your resume.|
|Languages||This section includes a list of the languages you know and your level of knowledge (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, Fluent). If you speak an uncommon language (e.g. Swahili or Finnish), including languages can help make you more memorable compared to other candidates. If you speak Spanish, for example, your employer might find that especially valuable, particularly if the job would have you working with people in Spanish-speaking areas.|
|Technical Skills||Technical skills include any specialized computer skills you may have that could be relevant to the job. You can either list them with bullet points or list them with commas, if you need to save space. If you know the job requires you to use specialized software or hardware, be sure to include this section.|
|Certifications||Usually, this section comes towards the beginning of your resume under the "Education" section and includes any field-specific certifications you may have along with the year you obtained them. For example, if you are applying for a job as a Project Manager and have a PMP (Project Management Professional) certification, you would want to include a certification section because it shows you have pursued this field beyond your basic education.|
You want to demonstrate to your prospective employer within the limited space you have that you have a variety of skills. So, if you have had similar jobs, choose different skills to highlight under each job heading. For example, if you have two food service jobs on your resume and are applying to a non-food related customer service job, instead of casting your job as
"Managed orders from 15-20 tables"
under each heading, you could highlight your managing under one job and highlight a different aspect of food service—say, collaborating with other staff members—under the other job heading. Make your choice based on which job involved more managing (perhaps you managed only 10 tables at your other food service job) and which involved more collaboration.
An exception to this rule is if you are applying for a field-specific job in which you have much experience. Then, you use the repetition of the field-specific verb to emphasize the amount of experience you have in that field.
Use active verbs in a telegraphic (verb first) style to describe the responsibilities you had in a particular job. It’s important that you never exaggerate or overclaim your role, but you want to describe the work you’ve done in a way that demonstrates that you have taken responsibility and been a leader in the past. So, when you can, try to use an active verb that shows you taking an action.
For example, "helped" and "assisted" are both active verbs, but they frequently fail to portray the applicant as an actor.
"Helped my advisor research..."
"Researched..." or "Collaborated with my advisor to research..."
The revised verbs "researched" and "collaborated" portray you as an actor.
However, make your active verb choices based on the skills required for your job or keywords in the job description. If the word assist has a specific technical meaning in your field, then you would want to use that verb on your resume.
One important strategy for attracting the interest of an employer is to try to include in your resume, whenever possible, some of the keywords from the job description you are applying for. Many employers use search engines to find candidates with resumes containing certain keywords. Even if you submit a resume directly to a prospective employer, your audience will likely glance over the document, scanning it for certain keywords from the job description.
When you are tailoring your resume to fit a specific job, make sure you spend some time identifying the keywords in the job description, which include specific skills or tasks the job requires. We also recommend consulting with someone in your field about keywords in your specific area. Then, when possible, make sure to include those keywords in your resume.
It's common advice to include quantitative measures or information on resumes, but, as with all other information included on your resume, you have to make a choice based on whether quantifying will help you stand out as a better candidate for the job than you would have seemed had you not quantified. If you had leadership or management responsibilities, how many employees or volunteers did you supervise? If you handled investments, how many assets did you manage?
For example, if you are applying to work as a lab assistant and managed a cash register at the local movie theatre, you don’t need to include that the cash register contained $200, because your job at the movie theatre would not have changed depending on the amount of money in the cash register, and you likely won’t be managing money as a lab assistant.
However, if you are applying for a teaching job, you want to include the number of students in each class you have taught in the past, because teaching three students is very different from teaching twenty students. While the amount of money in the cash drawer at the movies doesn’t emphasize your skill at the job, the number of students in your class highlights your teaching ability.
With a resume, formatting is part of what makes it easy for a potential employer to scan the document. Therefore, ensure your formatting makes your resume easy to read, rather than trying to make it stand out by calling attention to the formatting. Here are some good rules of thumb for resume formatting:
- Include 2-3 descriptions of relevant experience in single line bullet pointsafter each job title using your active verbs and keywords. The more concisely you state your experience, the more impact that experience will have on your audience. Limiting yourself to two or three single line (or at most two line) bullet points under each job also makes it easy for your audience to scan down the bullets to see what you’ve done in the past.
- Choose an easy-to-read font like Times New Roman or Arial, rather than a font with odd flourishes. You want your resume to stand out because of its content, not because of you’ve chosen a strange font.
- Font size should be at least 11 and no larger than 12. Any smaller, and your audience will have a difficult time reading the text.
- Use space wisely. If you have a lot of experience relevant to the job you are applying for, do what you can to fit it in. Consider decreasing the font size in the white spaces between sections or thinning some other sections of your resume. No matter what, do not try to jam too much onto a page by using smaller margins.
If you don’t have much work experience yet, rather than increasing the size of the font or including more white space, consider adding an additional section on non-work experience or skills that might be relevant to the job, such as your experience leading an extracurricular club or a section on your technical skills. See our advice on sections to include for more information on optional sections.
- Standard margins are 1 inch all around. Make sure there is enough white space and that you don’t fill the page so fully that your document becomes difficult to read or unappealing.
As with all writing, a resume will benefit from revision based on feedback from multiple audiences. If you are a UW-Madison student, you have many great resources available to you. Letters and Sciences students have the L&S Career Center, Engineers have Engineering Career Services, Nursing students have the School of Nursing Career Services, students in Education have EPCS, Pharmacy students have Career Development Services, and Business students have access to the Business Career Center. For individual feedback on a draft resume, these offices are a great resource, but we also recommend you consult with professors who know your field.
Additionally, if you are a student at UW-Madison, the Writing Center would be happy to give you a writing teacher’s feedback on a resume draft. We see many resumes from all kinds of students in the Writing Center, and our instructors will help you fit your resume to your particular audience based on the job description you provide. To make an appointment, call 6082631992 or submit your resume via email and hear from an instructor within 3 business days. You can also work with us on a first come first served basis via Skype or at one of our satellites. To learn more about our various services, see this page.
Click on the examples below to view sample resumes in PDF format.
- Sample Resume 1 (PDF)
(Economics major applying for a job at a medical software company)
- Sample Resume 2 (PDF)
(Kineseology major applying for a graduate assistantship in the field)
- Sample Resume 3 (PDF)
(Engineering major applying for an internship in nuclear engineering)